What happens when a sports team meets expectations?

Philadelphians have plenty of experience with the pain of coming up short of them. They’ve also felt the joy of exceeding them, especially this year with the Phillies and Union.

But what happens when a team lands right on that point in between?

That is the fate of the U.S. men’s soccer team, which lost to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the World Cup’s round of 16 in Al Rayyan, Qatar.

The Americans were beaten by a more talented team that played better. That has to be the starting premise, whether you’re new to soccer and will now go back to ignoring it, or a devoted fan of the sport.

Sometimes you face a more talented team that doesn’t play better. Sometimes you face a team that plays above its talent, which is why it was said here a few days ago that Senegal would have been a worse matchup for this U.S. squad.

And sometimes, you just get beaten.

Running out of gas

There are criticisms to level, for sure, starting with manager Gregg Berhalter’s refusal to budge from the core tenets of a tactical setup inspired by old Dutch traditions. With top striker Josh Sargent out due to an ankle injury, Berhalter could have started Tim Weah in his place, and made room for the talent of Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson.

Instead, Berhalter started Jesús Ferreira up top, and Ferreira touched the ball just 10 times in the first half-hour. That indicts the system more than the player.

Making matters worse, almost every U.S. player but Ferreira and Christian Pulisic looked fatigued. This was no surprise after the Americans’ grueling group stage, but it sure didn’t help.

All of that came home to roost on the Netherlands’ opening goal, a magnificent attacking swoop finished by Memphis Depay. A 20-pass play started with Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert, went repeatedly through midfield quarterback Frenkie de Jong, and sprung to life when Cody Gakpo received the ball in an open pocket of space.

Gakpo turned, raced forward and fed Denzel Dumfries on the right wing. Dumfries hit a swerving pass back as the U.S. defense marked players ahead of the ball. Depay made a perfect run behind the play, and hit a perfect shot past Matt Turner.

The Dutch team’s intelligence

The goal was made more frustrating by the 6-foot-8 Noppert’s denial of a surprisingly wide open Christian Pulisic in just the third minute. But the biggest frustration was still to come. The Netherlands yielded possession to the U.S., daring them to do something with it, and the Americans didn’t produce another shot until Tim Weah’s 43rd-minute rip at Noppert from 20 yards.

The rope-a-dope strategy worked to perfection. On the last play of the half, the Dutch had a throw-in deep in U.S. territory, passed the ball around in tight space, and got it to Dumfries for another inch-perfect setup pass to the middle. Daley Blind got on the receiving end this time, Sergiño Dest was caught chasing him, and Blind scored.

Now Berhalter had to yield to reality. He pulled Ferreira at halftime for Reyna, and put Reyna in Ferreira’s spot on the field. Reyna certainly isn’t a striker, but there was no doubt the pragmatism made the U.S. better.

Two and a half minutes after kickoff, the U.S. won a corner kick, and Tim Ream had a lunging chance cleared off the line. In the 52nd, Pulisic shot low at Noppert; in the 54th, Reyna teed up McKennie atop the box and he shot over the bar.

It was better, but not good enough. The gap on the scoreboard was too big, and so was the gap in street smarts.

The latter gap shrunk in the 67th minute when Berhalter sent in Haji Wright and Brenden Aaronson for Weah and McKennie, moving Reyna to the right flank and placing Aaronson in central midfield. But the scoreboard didn’t budge until the 76th, when Pulisic and Haji Wright forced a fluky goal that cut the deficit in half.

That woke everyone up, from players to fans at what had been a subdued Khalifa International Stadium.

But the hope of a miracle comeback did not last long. In the 81st, Blind caught a fatigued American defense with a chipped pass over the top of the line, and a wide-open Dumfries thumped the nail into the coffin from six yards.

“This is a difficult one to handle,” Berhalter told Fox’s TV broadcast after the game. “It’s such a good group of guys, such a close group of guys, and we came up short today. But not for the lack of trying, not the for lack of effort — I think the guys poured everything they had into this game, and unfortunately, we lost it. … Really proud of this group, but bitterly disappointed in the result tonight.”

Turning to the future

Much has changed in the eight years since the United States’ last men’s World Cup appearance, but one thing has not. A U.S. men’s team has gone home amid questions of what could have been, if only for something here or there.

“We can show that we can hang with some of the best teams in the world, some of the best players in the world, and that’s a lot of progress for U.S. soccer,” said Tyler Adams, captain of the second-youngest team at this World Cup and one of the youngest in U.S. history. “We’re moving in the right direction for sure, but we need to keep pushing. Because we’re not there yet, but we’re close.”

As with so many of his remarks in Qatar, these were inch-perfect.

“We still need to develop individually into more mature players for moments like this where we can come out on top,” Adams said. “Today, you could see a little bit more experienced team got the better of us. Our youth, our potential that we have, we need to maximize that moving forward in the time we have between now and, obviously, 2026.”

The what-ifs have come in all sizes, and they did in Qatar too. This time, the list starts with a big one: what if Berhalter had freed himself of his conservative coaching instincts with more than 45 minutes to save his team’s fate?

But the chorus of calls for a new manager shouldn’t just aim at Berhalter. The man who hired him, U.S Soccer Federation sporting director Earnie Stewart, should face scrutiny too. Will the chief architect of the program’s rigid philosophy embrace a more flexible pragmatist to lead the U.S. men to the 2026 World Cup they will co-host?

The opportunity may come without needing the moment of carnal vengeance that some fans want in a formal firing. Berhalter’s contract expires at the end of this year, and in his postgame news conference Saturday he alluded to something that’s been rumored for a while: he might step down on his own.

“For the last month, month and a half, I’ve just been only focused on the World Cup — only focused on achieving things with this group,” Berhalter said. “And in the next couple weeks, I’ll clear my head, I’ll sit down, and I’ll think about what’s next.”

That becomes the second question on the table. The first is this: What happens when a team does exactly what was expected — nothing more, nothing less?

The answer will start to lay the path for the next four years.

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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